On “serious rapes”

// 20 May 2011

AppleOrange.jpgImage shows an apple and an orange. Courtesy of TheBusyBrain – shared under a Creative Commons license

Trigger warning for discussion of rape and violence

Without going into the specifics of Ken Clarke’s statements and proposals, I want to make an observation about a related talking point I have frequently encountered:

“But surely,” people say, “you cannot believe that being raped by a partner/date without other violence is as serious as being raped by a stranger at knife-point/gun-point after being dragged into a dark alley/into some bushes and beaten.”

The problem with this sort of comparison is its conflation of too many unrelated things. It is easy to agree to parts of it. Being beaten is worse than not being beaten. Being threatened with a weapon is worse than not being threatened with a weapon. Being abducted is worse than not being abducted.

But it is an error to collapse all aspects of the situations into “the rape”. Rape is a specific act: the act of non-consensual penetration. If one regards rape as a crime against a person – a violation of bodily integrity – then such acts cannot possibly be distinguished in seriousness on the basis of the identity of the perpetrator or any pre-existing relationship with the victim, including previous sexual contact. The crime is against a person’s autonomy, their ownership of their self, an ownership which we should never regard as diminished or ceded through consensual human relations.

As I have argued before, the identity of the rapist, and their prior relations with a victim, can only mitigate a rape if we regard rape as a crime against “purity” – a quality for which a rape victim’s body is merely a vehicle, and in relation to which she or he stands as a guardian, thus potentially culpable for its loss. The wrongness of rape inheres, in this perspective, not in the violation of a human being’s autonomy, but in the destruction of purity, a destruction for which both rapist and victim can be apportioned blame.

If we are talking about the rapes themselves and not additional acts, there is simply no distinction that can be made between stranger rapes, date rapes and partner rapes, which does not implicitly rely on the dehumanising logic of purity. The sheer variety of human psychology makes a nonsense of any arguments that people will always experience any one of these acts as a greater victimisation than another. Rape is a crime against a person, not against some abstract value for which the person is only a vessel.

Comments From You

Laura // Posted 21 May 2011 at 9:20 am

Brilliant explanation, Jolene, thanks.

Huimin Magdala Anne // Posted 21 May 2011 at 10:15 am

Excellent post, Jolene. ♥

Jennifer Drew // Posted 21 May 2011 at 12:03 pm

Rape is not something which happens to a ‘person(s)’ rather it is an act(s) predominantly committed by males against women and girls. Without an analysis of how and why men believe rape is not rape we remain in a situation wherein it is person(s) committing these crimes against other person(s). A clever way of erasing male supremacy and instead women become ‘persons!’

Feminism is the radical idea that women are being oppressed/subordinated by men and rape is one of the central planks of male supremacy over women.

So it is not that a person’s bodily autonomy is being violated but rather how and why our male supremacist system views male sexual violence against women as a non-issue. Women still do not have autonomy and ownership of their bodies and that is why common claims are made that whenever a male partner/ex male partner rapes a woman it is not as serious as that mythical deviant (male) stranger complete with horns who targets the mythical virginal 100% innocent little girl! Such myths were created to ensure women remain frightened of the mythical deviant (male) monster rather than see how male supremacist system operates to maintain pseudo male sex right to women and girls 24/7.

In other words unless one provides an analysis of how and why women-blaming is endemic and why the widespread belief that rape is not ‘rape’ because women and girls are supposedly responsible for causing those ‘persons’ (sic) to rape them or rather not rape them but simply enact their male entitlement – then such non sex specific analysis becomes meaningless. I might as well claim it is martians committing rape against persons because this article says nothing about the sex of the rapists.

Laura // Posted 22 May 2011 at 3:01 pm

Firstly, first time comment on the F Word-loving your work.

Secondly, have been following this story with interest in the past while, and made the mistake to read a certain columnist in the Daily Mail today who basically agreed with Clarke that some rapes were more serious than others, followed by a rant about having a liberal government and a nice opportunity to have a go at (his understanding of) feminism. I honestly wanted to vomit at that. Yuck yuck yuck. This is not about saying that rape does not deserve adequate punishment, this country needs a better record when it comes to rape convictions (what the solution is to that I don’t know), but it just makes me so angry to think that anyone wants to silence a rape victim/survivor by claiming that their rape wasn’t as serious. Combined with the whole culture in this country that women are casually ‘crying-rape’ and the victim blaming that goes on, I could scream. I can only agree with the point made here that being threatened with additional violence (e.g. a weapon) adds to the trauma of (any) situation, but that does not mean that by extension a rape without a weapon is any less serious. And I only hope I’ve worded that well enough that it won’t be misinterpreted.

Cycleboy // Posted 23 May 2011 at 12:54 pm

I think this is a very useful analysis. Prior to reading this, I tended to agree with the proposition that some ‘rapes’ were more traumatic (not serious) than others. However, I think the author makes a very valid point that we, society (and I include myself in this) tend to conflate the rape with the assault; assuming that a (relatively) non-violent rape would be less traumatic than one involving serious violence and injury.

I wonder how the courts deal with this? Perhaps rapists should be tried for two separate offences; 10 the violation of a person’s autonomy and 2) the physical assault. Thus, the penalty can be separated, so many years for the rape and so many for the physical assault.

Rose // Posted 23 May 2011 at 6:03 pm

I have twice woken up in hospital to be told by doctors that I nearly died in the night due to quantity/quality of date-rape drugs in my system, and that I was lucky that a friend had spotted me in trouble, and got me an ambulance.

They told me that I should report the ‘attempted rape’ to the police.

I hadn’t been on dates, I don’t know who drugged me. Those experience have fundamentally changed my view of humanity, old friends, and strangers alike.

I found it hollowing to be told that what had nearly killed me was a failed attempt at a crime, and that all I had been suffering was nothing worth the laws notice.

Maybe my attackers didn’t kidnap, assault or rape me, but they did poisen me. I felt like they were telling me that my life wasn’t worth legal protection.

When I heard Clarke refer to date rape as not serious, or violent, and possibily with a willing woman, my mind went striaght back to that hospital bed.

I really agree with the article above, not only should rape be taken seriously in law, but ALL other offences commited against the victim should also hold real penalty.


date-rape drugs – if you have to drug someone, they’re NOT willing!

Jolene Tan // Posted 23 May 2011 at 6:18 pm

@Rose, thank you very much for sharing your story.

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